The ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ series has become notorious – a crazy diamond in the crown of British festivals. Its celebrity-curated events produce some of the most personal, individual and diverse line-ups around. Past events have been curated by such disparate parties as Shellac (who put on acts like Cheap Trick and Mission of Burma), Autechre (Kool Keith and Aphex Twin) as well as actor Vincent Gallo (PJ Harvey, Suicide and Merzbow). With such a banquet of left-field music across the spectrum integrating, as a festival it’s pretty unique. Especially when you consider that it’s held in Butlins; perhaps the most incongruous location possible for a meeting of countless rockers, beard-strokers, hipsters, riot grrls, musos and psychedelic druids. Last week’s ATP, curated by ‘The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening, collected maybe the most prismatic line-up yet. It’s bewildering yet beautiful to attend a festival which transports you from the worlds of primitive electronics to Mali blues to Japanese noise rock, all on one stage. The line-up was far too extensive to catalogue in detail here, but I’ve selected some highlights – the three most essential performances from each day – to narrate just how important it is that you make the hellish journey from York to Minehead as soon as the next ATP comes around (coincidentally it’s next weekend). If you feel it’s time to open your eyes and mind to the possibilities of music, here’s your best opportunity festival-wise to destroy the stereotypes that abound in the sonic world, and revel in a bacchanal of aural ecstasy. Oh, and get really fucking wasted in a Butlins chalet.
Day 1: Friday 7th May
Having just about survived a journey which raped us with such occurrences as a Megabus trip, the drinking of two bottles of whiskey, one of our party losing all the train tickets and festival passes on the tube, and a heinous election result we collapsed into the welcoming fresh linen of our chalet. The first band of the day was also one of the best; Broadcast are surely one of the most underrated groups from the UK. Hailing from the midland wastes, the duo peddle earthly, hallucinogenic electronics with dreamy, wraithlike vocals. Their primordial percussive sounds bring to mind Silver Apples; while Trish Keenan’s lost wailings recall Grouper or a more heathen Cocteau Twins. A pleasingly psychedelic projection silhouetted them, the gig having the feel of a secret ritual in the night-woods. Their retro-futuristic rumblings deserve the same acclaim as less out-there bands of their ilk such as Beach House or Stereolab. Toumani Diabaté is one of the highest profile names here, but sadly the Western musical iron curtain means he’s not even playing the big stage. It’s truly an honour to witness the 21-string kora player at such close quarters; his band telepathically tight, the whole audience, whether old hands or uninitiated exploding into a cooking-pot of dancing. The festival hosts two more acts from the African continent – thumb-piano wielding trance-makers Konono No. 1 and the pop stylings of Amadou and Mariam – but of these exports Diabaté is truthfully in a class of his own. Striking the perfect balance between virtuoso classicism and down-to-earth funk, the band counts as both one of the most technically impressive and enjoyable I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. And holy hell can the man on the marimba play. My favourite punk rock record of all time is Iggy and the Stooges ‘Raw Power’, so this next little review might be a wee bit biased. But it doesn’t matter if you’re a neophyte or a hater, you can’t deny that the band is firing on all cylinders today. Having bolstered the line-up after the great Ron Asheton’s death with the legendary James Williamson (who, rather than the gaunt vampire staring from old photographs now resembles my uncle) the seismic guitar tone that aggrandised the band’s sound on that record is grimly resurrected. Iggy is topless in seconds, looking surprisingly youthful and moving like a zombie Jagger on steroids. The erstwhile insurance salesman injects as much life into ‘Search and Destroy’, ‘Cock in my Pocket’ and ‘Death Trip’ as he ever did, the crowd blown into an apocalyptic frenzy which sees me crowd-surf five times, losing half my bodyweight in sweat and saving about seven people from being crushed. Tired, aching but euphoric, we return to our chalet to get some rest before Liars hit the stage at an ungodly hour.
Day 2: Saturday 8th May
Deerhunter are one of the more fresh-faced additions to the line-up, but their intense and odd guitar-heavy indie is precociously impressive in comparison to many of the veteran acts on the bill. Singer Bradford Cox (who one of my companions was excited to urinate next to earlier in the day) is a gawky presence onstage, his geeky chat and awkward rocking-out at odds with the band’s powerful sound and his own soaring vocals. Shifting through noise-rock, arty-shoegazing and clean pop throughout the set, the band peaks late on as they lock into a krautrock-groove and send the audience into a comfortably numb reverie. One of the bands I never thought I’d see live was reclusive and mystifying art-weirdoes The Residents. Yet Matt Groening is a fan, and here they are amidst a strange 50’s style living room set, the singer in a grandpa mask, flanked by two alien Rastafarians spookily outlined by astral projections. The current stage show revolves around storytelling, interspersed with ghostly Americana compositions, bringing to mind a possessed Ry Cooder playing on methadone with Tom Waits’ insane cousin on vocals. The stories, including blackly comic tales of ‘the mirror people’ get the audience laughing, while sudden tempo shifts and clangings cause individuals around me to recoil and jump. The Residents still have the power to shock, confuse and entertain. The crowd swells for the 1am performance of Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, head honcho of Animal Collective. The mind-melting ambience of the day’s music continues as disorientating visuals combine with soaring Beach Boys-meets-Timothy Leary melodies. Lennox is fairly static, operating like a mad professor behind a heady stack of synthesizers and keyboards, but the music itself infectiously fills you up with the need to get extremely physical, even after witching hour. On record, Lennox’s music is sunny and palatable, but live he seems to vent his more avant-garde tendencies. Before Animal Collective were critical darlings they weren’t afraid to drone out a heavy set. As their performances have become more song-based and traditional, Panda Bear seems to have inherited this bad acid, as monstrously psychedelic utterances reel from the stage, an audience divided into indie kids faintly worried by the onstage mutation and converted heads getting dance busy. Drained, we soldier on through the night, ending up playing limbo with a load of hairy Glaswegians on LSD and ruining a cyber-goth party with a commercial R ‘n B playlist.
Day 3: Sunday 9th May
Waking up with a head like a hole is never a good time to see the Boredoms. But it’s a very rare opportunity, and minutes after getting up ninja-style and brushing my teeth like a samurai I’m at the front of the crowd for their extraordinary performance of ‘Boadrum’. If you’re not familiar, Boredoms are an experimental Japanoise band, famed for their off-the-wall live experiences and manic frontman Yamantaka Eye, who has collaborated with Mike Patton and Sonic Youth. ‘Boadrum’ is a drum-based composition which in the past has featured 77 and 88 drummers, including Andrew WK, Joe Plummer and Gang Gang Dance. Here the ‘Boadrum’ is performed on a smaller scale, with 7 drummers, but is still incredibly effective. The drums are arranged in formation around Eye, who stands commandingly in front of a tall stack of guitars and synthesizers, which he hits with a drumstick to produce otherworldly effects. Minutes after they begin, Zach Hill of Hella is carried in whilst playing his kit viciously atop a palanquin, moving slowly above the audience’s heads in a ceremonial fashion, a fantastic spectacle. The performance is far more listenable than a lot of the band’s 80’s output, and it almost feels like we’re watching a kind of interstellar orchestra at some points. The surf guitars, shimmering waves of cymbals, vehement passages of powerfully physical drumming and psychotic noises emitted from Eye’s trachea create undoubtedly the defining experience of the festival. Matt Groening himself comes on to introduce The Tiger Lillies, and oddly enough he isn’t severely jaundiced and missing two fingers. It’s easy to see why he describes them as his ‘favourite’ band playing – they’re an absolute national treasure. A Brechtian trio playing gruesome freakshow cabaret, they are the only band I’ve ever seen live that has made me both cry laughing at what they’re playing and at the beauty of what they’re playing. I’m in stitches during ‘Bangin’ in the Nails’, which features mad accordion and fervent martial drumming atop such lyrics as ‘I’m crucifying Jesus, bangin’ in the nails / And I am so happy, because old Jesus failed / I’m crucifying Jesus, nail him to the cross / The poor old bastard bleeds to death and I don’t give a toss.’ But then the audience goes quiet as a cemetery as Martyn Jacques sings a ballad in his queer falsetto croon and Adrian Stout bows his musical saw, the most mournful and melodramatic sound in the universe. Ending on a raucous gypsy-tinged ‘Heroin and Cocaine’ involving a Theremin assaulted with a double bass, the set is a triumph, and hopefully their inclusion in the festival has given them more of the exposure and acclaim they deserve. Joanna Newsom provides the finale, her swooning, Appalachian faerie folk a perfect accompaniment to the inevitable comedown. Beginning the set alone with her harp, you could hear a pin drop as we collectively hang on to her every note and phrase. Joined by the band, their music warmly fills the room, modernist and complex yet welcoming all the same. Material from ‘Have One On Me’ goes down as well as anything from ‘Ys’, the new record signalling a change from her polyrhythmic, progressive beginnings to more plaintive material. Her beaming presence and astonishing musical literacy provide the quintessential ATP curtain call. The festival’s music has been in turns virtuoso, base, mad, calm, experimental, minimal, populist and aggressive. Few experiences reinforce your faith in music quite so robustly, and few festivals transcend genres, categorisation and scenes with such aplomb. Who would have thought the man who created ‘The Simpsons’ would have such wide-ranging and impeccable taste? Thank God this wasn’t a retread of the ‘Homerpalooza’ episode and that The Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill and Peter Frampton weren’t headlining…